Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.
So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.
Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls
Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times, when we feel a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks, a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later, I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal, catches my eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)
Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs
Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!
Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom
Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it. A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition. The birding group, binoculars in hand, spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh. Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?
Autumn 2017: Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed
Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead, as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation. Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail, tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!
Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?
As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff. And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!
Late April and early May are full of dramas. Birds hassle each other over territories. Some turn their brightest feathers into the sunlight or sing elaborately constructed songs to impress the ladies. Snapping turtles roil the waters of the marsh as they twist and turn with their partners, butting heads and biting as they perform their mating dance. Late spring wildflowers and smaller trees hurry to show their best blooms to attract pollinators before bigger trees cloak them in shade. It’s a bustling, slightly crazy season – and isn’t it great?
Migrating Summer Birds Busy Courting, Hassling and Scouting for Nests
Down at the Center Pond one cool spring morning, the birding group watched a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) warming itself on a log at one end of the pond. Its neck wasn’t stretched over the water, so it wasn’t seriously fishing; it just sat there peaceably. Gradually, a pair of passive-aggressive Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) noticed its presence and decided, evidently, that they wanted the pond to themselves. They cruised slowly up to the heron until one of them was nearly beak to beak with it. The heron just sat. They joined forces and approached together. The heron just sat. Finally, one goose climbed onto the heron’s log, while the other positioned itself directly in front of the hapless heron. It sat for another minute and then finally acquiesced, fluttering off to the muddy shore nearby. Conflict successfully avoided, it probably found plenty of snails, insects and amphibians to eat while waiting for the geese to depart.
Sometimes the ongoing drama is a little less obvious. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) are plentiful in Bear Creek this year. One morning a male turned his bright pink breast patch to the sun and trilled his elaborate spring song repeatedly for his more modestly dressed mate. (If you hear a fancy version of the robin’s song, there’s likely to be a male grosbeak nearby.)
But nearby, there’s a careful observer. The female Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is high in a tree listening, too.
She’s watching for a likely nest in which to lay her eggs. Maybe she’s hoping the grosbeaks will be the ones to nurture and raise her young. Fortunately, the grosbeaks aren’t great prospects. They’re big enough to push the eggs out of the nest – if they notice them. Some birds do and some don’t. The drama hasn’t reached Act II.
In the small meadow west of the pond, a male Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)spent the morning stringing together short phrases – whistles, tweets, trills and imitations of birds, frogs, even occasionally machinery! His complicated song can go on for minutes without repetition! This male combined song with ruffling his feathers and chasing after the female who was playing hard-to-get. She’d stop to listen, fly off and then dart toward him. He’d pursue her, fluff his feathers again and sing something new. And on they went at the forest edge and among the meadow’s small trees and shrubs.
Some migrators arrive in busy flocks, just stopping over for a short while to refuel before flying north. This week, a flock of 6 or 7 White-Crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) rode in on a south wind during the night and spent the morning gobbling whatever they could find at the edge of the trails. Such a handsome little sparrow with its striped crown!
Some birds fly in for just a short time to breed and then return to southern climes. This Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius), the smallest of the orioles, flitted quickly among the branches, nibbling on sweet leaf buds for a little quick energy. Even if he finds his yellow-green mate and nests, he’ll likely be gone by mid-July – back to his favorite haunts in Central America.
High overhead, a pair of Sandhill Cranes croaked their wild cry, sounding and looking like two prehistoric pterodactyls with their giant wings. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The warblers, the tiniest of migrants, have begun to arrive. A week ago a fellow birder helped me spot two species – the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) – and, we think, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula.) I didn’t manage to take any decent photos since some ate high in the tree tops and others hopped madly from limb to limb nibbling on leaf buds. So here are three photos from last year just to jog your memory.
In the western meadow, an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) paused on a stalk. Kingbirds have a crown of red, orange or yellow feathers under that black cap, but they only show when they’re attacking a predator. I’ve never seen them. According to Cornell lab, this solitary, feisty bird changes his lifestyle in the winter, traveling in flocks all along the Amazon and eating fruit instead of Michigan insects. A favorite photo below from a few years ago shows his crown just slightly raised and his red gaping mouth. Maybe he’s feeling just a wee bit aggressive?
Drama in the Wetlands as Well
Over in the marsh, a very small Snapping Turtle(Chelydra serpentina) and a MUCH larger one roiled the water at the far end of the marsh. The difference in their neck lengths will help you determine their relative size in the photos.
I assume the smaller one was the male as he attempted to mount the back of the female’s huge shell at one point. Snappers generally do a lot of face biting when they mate, sometimes injuring each other. The photo below may look like a kiss but it’s more likely that the small turtle on the left is approaching to bite some indeterminable body part of the larger on the right. It didn’t look as though things worked out too well for either of them. After some rolling and tumbling in the marsh, the smaller swam off and the larger floated calmly in the distance.
Blue-spotted Salamanders ((Ambystoma laterale) reproduce in a less excited manner. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, salamanders emerge from their burrows on the night of the first snow-melting rain (now that would be dramatic to witness!) and go to the nearest vernal pool After a little nudging and hugging, the male deposits a sperm-topped cone of jelly on the ground in front of the female. She takes it in to fertilize her eggs, which are laid in the water in the next day or so. By mid-summer, the hatched tadpole-like larvae develop lungs instead of gills and absorb their tail fins, taking adult form. Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) lay their eggs in burrows and their young hatch as miniature adults. Here are some salamander eggs and a salamander larvae/tadpole that the monitoring team found in a pool last year, plus three different species of juvenile salamanders under some wood in the park two weeks or so ago.
In the Woods, Not Much Drama, but Burgeoning Life
Again this year, a raccoon is inhabiting the giant hole in the Oak-Hickory forest. Other years this has meant a passel of playful kits by the end of May. I saw nothing until I stepped into the crunchy leaves at the trail’s edge and this curious face popped up at the edge of hole.
The Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), a migrating insect who probably overwintered in southern Texas, arrived at the wood’s edge a couple of weeks ago. According to Wikipedia, Red Admirals usually have two broods here between May and October.
Under the growing canopy of bright new leaves, a carpet of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is blooming. In the blossom below, a tiny bee from the Halictadae family has curled up to feed on flower nectar. These tiny bees are commonly known as “sweat bees” because they like to lick salt from us humans (luckily, their sting is very minor). This bee’s bright metallic green may mean it’s an Augochlora Sweat Bee (Augochlora pura), solitary bees who don’t live socially in hives. If you know your Michigan bees, please feel free to correct me.
The Little Dramas Keep Life Coming
The dramas of spring creatures mean life continues. The best singer, the most beautiful feathers, the best provider of a good territory get chosen and a new generation begins. Fortunately, the temporary territorial disputes of birds don’t usually result in death or destruction. One bird moves on to new territory and in many cases, joins his former competitor in a fall flock which ends up feeding calmly together on winter feeding grounds. Nature knows that both low level conflict and general cooperation keep life going, even improving, generation by generation. Maybe we humans should take a lesson from them?
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.
What a difference a month makes! I began a series of visits to Cranberry Lake Park on September 24 and ended on October 25. I wanted to watch the park change as fall moved toward winter. It’s as if the color slowly leaves the flowers and grasses in the earth, flows up into the trees and then disappears into the black and white of winter. So this time I’m sharing a transition – who and what is coming and going at this changeable time of year.
Late September: Flowers Change to Fruit and Seeds
In late September, the meadow was still green, but splashed with the gold of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). A sweeping curve of this beautiful native plant swept around the large thicket of shrubs in the center of the meadow. It was easy to imagine the path of last summer’s winds as it carried the seeds that created this graceful shape.
And a few other flowers hung on in September. Individual stems of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)glowed gold among the greenery and a few hardy, flat-topped Yarrow stalks(Achillea millefolium) thrust their way above the browning Canada Goldenrod. Late-blooming Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) – which some call Cudweed! – appeared as well, its tightly furled white buds just beginning to open in the cool autumn air. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Wild Grapes, also known as River Bank Grapes (Vitis riparia), hung in clusters on almost bare branches offering a treat for migrating and resident birds – and a few of us humans as well! A few weeks later they had either fallen to the ground or been eaten right off the vine.
Abundant clusters of wild Riverbank Grapes adorn the branches of this shrub.
A few weeks later the wild grapes had disappeared, probably nourishing animals as they stock up for winter.
In September, the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) leaves changed from green to scarlet and the upright plumes of deep red fruits began to form. One morning, a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees bounced among the branches, foraging either for fruits or the occasional bug. Perhaps they were the ones who stripped the fruit from some of the plumes. Sumac fruits are eaten by many game and songbirds, though normally they’re not a first choice this time of year.
Over the next few weeks, the Goldenrods began to brown and go to seed. Showy Goldenrod seems to start seeding from the top down, week by week. And eventually that golden curve of Showy Goldenrod had turned a seed-rich, but not very attractive, brown.
And despite not being a first choice fruit, the Staghorn Sumac’s seeds had either been eaten on the plant or fallen on the ground to be found by ground feeders.
Talk about cool seeds! Looks at these elaborate seed pods of Dogbane/Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)! Dogbane is related to milkweeds, and like milkweeds the seeds with tufts of hair help the plant float on the breeze to new places. On the left is this red-stemmed, white-blossomed plant in June and on the center and right, the unbelievably long, angular seed pods this week.
Of course, some seeds are actually a HUGE problem. In autumn, the invasive, tree-killing vine, Oriental/Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), produces its seductively beautiful yellow and red fruits. This vine encircles the trunks of trees while climbing for the sun. In doing so, it can choke the life out of a tree. If it gets to the top, it can kill the tree by shading it out and/or by making it top heavy and more likely to fall in storms. Unfortunately, hungry birds eat the berries and spread Bittersweet readily through their droppings. PLEASE DON’T PICK THIS VINE OR MAKE WREATHS FROM IT , ETC. Contact the Parks Department if you want some strategies for getting rid of this beautiful “bad guy”!
By late October, the meadow at Cranberry Creek had turned November brown as plants continued to produce seeds.
I did, though, find a few shy Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) tucked beneath overhanging foliage, braving the cold with the last of its lavender blossoms.
During October: A Feast for Migrating Birds!
It’s hard for us to watch the palette of spring and summer fade – but birds? They love it! Warblers and other small visitors who spent their summer raising young in the cool northern reaches of Canada sailed into the park and found a feast! As did our year ’round resident birds.
One of my favorite partakers of fruits and seeds is the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) who’s found its way here from around Hudson Bay in Canada – or even farther north. I seem to always miss seeing the ruby crown which the male shows when he’s excited. I guess the birds I’m seeing are either females or males that are just too calm!
One afternoon at Cranberry Lake, the park was filled with White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). They whisked in and out of shrubs while dashing down into the grass in search of seeds. This one paused just long enough for me to see its yellow lores, the spots at the corner of its eyes. It may have arrived from the UP or the tip of the mitten on its way to points south – not quite as arduous a trip as some migrators have.
This “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) was probably born this summer. It will take on adult coloring when it molts next spring into its bright black and white crown that now is brown and gray. This one was feeding avidly ongoldenrod seed during its journey from northern Canada to somewhere south of Michigan.
One morning, far up the path in the shadow of trees, a small Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) landed quickly, picked up a bug or fallen fruit from the grass, and took off. No photo. But here’s one from a previous year with its chocolate brown back and breast smudges. Too bad the Hermit Thrush doesn’t court its mate here, because its song has 3 different phrases with a pause between each. You can hear two versions of it here.
Our birding group saw other migratory birds enjoying the rest and sustenance provided by Cranberry Lake Park, but through our binoculars. They were too far away or too restless for me to capture them with the camera. The little Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) is making its way from Canada’s far north to Mexico or Central America. The Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) stopped by on its journey from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. And the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) has a comparatively short migration from northern Michigan or Canada to just south of Michigan. So as in all of our parks, Cranberry Lake offers much needed R&R for these small seasonal visitors.
During the bird walk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) swooped into the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, perhaps chasing a songbird. It flew straight in front of us and quickly disappeared – we think without snagging the bird. Pretty exciting! Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller and seen less often than the similar Cooper’s Hawk. They usually appear only during migration, so it’s probably headed south by now. Here’s a link to a photo at Cornell Lab.
A summer resident, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) called “chewink!” from the edge of the woods one birdwalk morning. When Ben imitated his call, the male Towhee darted into a nearby bush, intending, I assume, to check out the competition. Here’s a photo of one from last spring. (Let’s just say my photo luck was not with me on that bird walk!)
So though we miss the flowers, they have done their work. They attracted the right pollinators which helped create the very seeds that feed tired and hungry migrating birds – as well as having provided bees with the makings for the honey that will feed them through the winter, too. As a compensation, color comes to us once more as the trees begin to turn.
Late October: Winter Resident from the Far North Arrives – and Color Fills the Trees
Just this week, an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) may have flown into Cranberry Lake Park from the edge of the Arctic tundra! This sparrow, with a spot in the middle of its gray chest and a two-tone bill, loves cold weather. During the summer, Tree Sparrows make elegant nests of ptarmigan feathers right on the ground in the Arctic in order to raise their young. Evidently for a Tree Sparrow, spending the winter in Michigan is like going to Florida! Below is the first one I’ve seen this year.
A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) did a lot to brighten up the browning of the meadow last week. Most Bluebirds migrate south, but a few actually stay with us all winter, either in family groups or small flocks, as long as there are seeds and berries available. I couldn’t resist taking more than one photo. Their splashes of azure in the field were really cheering on a gray fall day.
Color, of course, is the glory of a Michigan autumn. On September 24, the Hickory Lane still looked green and lush. By October 11, the colors had changed to gold and orange. And on October 24, a single glowing Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) at the south end of the lane was still shining in the sunlight after most of the other hickory trees began to turn brown.
The maple family contributes lavishly to the beauty of autumn. On the path to the lake, a striking leaf from a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) featured some colorful geometry. And nearby, the deeply lobed greenish-white underside of a pale yellow leaf from a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) created some contrast. At the lake’s edge, oak and maple leaves formed a scarf of fall color floating on the surface.
The lake again was filled with migrating ducks and water birds – all much too far out for any kind of shot. Female Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Mute Swans(Cygnus olor) were among the throng. Here are photos of those birds from locations where I can get closer to them!
But there were also Pied-Billed Grebes(Podilymbus podiceps), and American Black Ducks(Anas rubripes)on Cranberry Lake. Please click on these red Cornell Lab links if you’d like to see them up close. Let’s hope a viewing deck gets built on Cranberry Lake in the next few years so all of us can get a closer look in person at the water birds that flock to the lake in spring and fall to socialize and feed.
A Different Kind of Transition in the North of the Park
Finally, a wonderful transition is being finished on the trail at the north end of the park. The Parks and Recreation maintenance staff has spent long hours this summer improving the trail from 32 Mile Road into the park. Instead of an oft-flooded, muddy track, they have laid down a solid surface with periodic drainage pipes running beneath it to keep the new trail from flooding. You certainly can feel the difference underfoot! And I imagine equestrians, as well as hikers, will appreciate the improvement. Thanks to Maintenance Foreman Doug Caruso and Maintenance Technician Jeff Johnson for a hard job that, when completed, should be a great improvement for the park!
Autumn: Harvest Time for All of Us!
So, just as we humans harvest crops before the snow falls, birds and animals harvest the wild “crops” of the fields – seeds and fruits. Some of them, like Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), both eat and store them, tucking the seeds into bark where they will find them when snow blankets the meadow. Others, like the Palm Warbler, use them to fuel their flight to warmer climes. Winter residents, like the Tree Sparrow, will probe the brown goldenrod for seeds all winter – as well as flocking at your feeder. So when the color drains away, when the leaves are wet and brown underfoot, it may be a comfort to think of the bounty that surrounds us in those dry, drab plants. The brown and gray seeds nourish all kinds of creatures, and guarantee next summer’s bounty of plants. Those dry leaves underfoot dropped when they completed their work of sending sugars to the trees’ roots, ready to fuel next year’s growth. Seeds and falling leaves really are another reason to be thankful as November arrives. Maybe nature deserves a rest after a job well done!
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.
Sunlight is dappling the Oak-Hickory forest at Bear Creek. Tiny Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) shine pink and white wherever thin spring sun touches the forest floor. Migrating birds, here for a brief stop before moving north, hop from limb to limb in the treetops, searching for a meal. Some of our summer visitors are exploring for nests around the forest’s vernal pools while others are settling in around the ponds and among the twigs and vines in sunny areas.
A few butterflies and moths flutter through open fields, keeping us company as we walk. Springs bubble up out of the ground and a stream flows through the woods toward the marsh. The haze of green moves up from the shrubs into the trees. In the woods, in marshes and wetlands, in sunny meadows – at last, it’s really spring!
Spring in the Woods
During the night, migrating birds are riding the south wind, finding their way back to Bear Creek. A busy group of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) chatted and fluttered in the greening forest. They’re on their way north to court and breed among the conifers farther up in Michigan. Some go as far as Hudson Bay or eastern Alaska. Here they’re stocking up on protein for the flight, finding little insects on the branches. Later, in the trees near the Snell marsh, I got a shot of one showing his eponymous “yellow rump” patch. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover your cursor for captions.)
Farther into the woods, near one of the vernal pools we monitored a few weeks ago, two Wood Ducks had arrived from the south and were checking out possible nest holes 25-30 feet up in a snag (standing dead tree.) They prefer the larger holes left by fallen branches. Wood ducks have strong claws on their feet to grasp branches and bark. Later, their 3 day old ducklings will jump down from those heights into the leaves below unharmed to join their mother foraging in a nearby pond as seen in this 1.5 minute Youtube video from a BBC documentary.
Down in the vernal pool, beneath the Wood Ducks, stood a graceful, small tree covered in white blossoms, a Juneberry or Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.). This native tree produces small fruits that are much beloved by birds and other wildlife.
Plentiful spring rain topped up the vernal pool and a few Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus)began to sing again. Mostly, though, they seem to have found their mates and deposited their eggs on vegetation under the water.
Likewise, the salamanders have finished producing those huge bundles of eggs that were in the last Bear Creek blog. These nocturnal creatures are now back under logs nearby, waiting to come out and feed at night. Here’s what I think is a small Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) that we found under wood in a moist area near a vernal pond.
Under the budding branches of taller trees, all kinds of native plants are finding their way into the pale sunlight. The sunny faces of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) shown in the last Bear Creek blog (left) have finished blooming. But all over the woods you can see their cloak-like leaves which unfold after the flowers drop their petals. In the center, stands the Bloodroot’s “fruit” which now contains its fertilized seeds.
As the tree canopy fills high above, the Bloodroot’s stalk will continue to grow until it forms a little umbrella over the fruit. Eventually the seed capsule will swell and burst, dispersing tiny brown seeds for next year’s crop to be carried underground by ants who relish the elaiosome, a parcel rich in oils and proteins, attached to the seed. This was a great year for Bloodroot. Successive prescribed burns may have really benefited this little woodland flower.
May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) are living up to their names. Their umbrella-like leaves shelter a round green bud that resembles a tiny apple. It will bloom into a creamy white flower in a few weeks, still hidden beneath the leaves.
An inconspicuous little plant called Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica)is just completing its bloom all over the forest. It appears to be little clumps of grass, but this time of year, this sedge blooms with a little yellow flower. The papyrus that ancient Egyptians used was made from a member of the sedge family.
In moist places in the woods, an old friend appeared this week. Jack-in-the Pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) produce bright red cones of berry-like fruit in the late summer and fall.
At the edge of the wood, where it meets the field or the marsh, one of my favorite summer visitors has arrived. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus), with the striking rosy red patch on his white chest and black and white patterned back, sings at the forest edge near the marsh and the pond. This one hid in a bush when he saw my camera – but kept singing!
And what a song! Here’s a recording in Bear Creek by my friend, Antonio Xeira from the Xeno-cantu website . (Be sure to turn up your volume.)
Some flowers seem to be happiest at the forest edge, too. Like the shy Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia). Such a pretty little face.
Approaching the pond as you come out of the eastern woods, you begin to see and hear a small stream flowing toward the marsh. It’s most apparent under the boardwalk at the eastern edge of the Center Pond.
That little stream joins with ground water rising to the surface in the marsh and eventually flows under Gunn Road at the northeast corner of the marsh – becoming the park’s namesake, Bear Creek! I love the sound of running water after a frozen winter!
Spring in the Marshes, Ponds and Vernal Pools
There are babies down near the water. Four young Canada Goose goslings (Branta canadensis) paddled and bobbed between their parents as they surveyed Bear Creek Marsh.
And three small Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)crowded together on the tip of a log after rain made the water rise in the Center Pond. Space in the sunshine was at a premium!
High above the marsh near Snell Road, the air was full of newly hatched midges and Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooped back and forth with their mouths wide open gathering them in. Their ruddy breasts caught the evening light at dusk one night and shone like copper. They were much too fast and high for a good shot. So here’s a link to see one at the Audubon website.
Approaching the Center Pond at a distance one early evening, I saw a Great Egret drifting down to the water. I hurried along with my camera, but a very nice couple, walking and talking, scared him up just as I put the camera to my eye! Drat. So here’s one of my favorite egret photos from another year. I’m glad to know they’re still at Bear Creek since I missed them last year.
The leaves of an aquatic plant float on the surface of the Playground Pond. What a lovely pattern Celery Leaf Buttercup(Ranunculus sceleratus) makes in spring sunlight!
Spring in the Meadows
While near the Center Pond, keep an eye out for another summer visitor, the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), a feisty bird who harasses much larger birds that enter its territory – even hawks and herons! According to the Cornell lab, “They have been known to knock unsuspecting Blue Jays out of trees.” The Kingbird’s dark head, upright posture and the white tips on its tail make it quickly recognizable. This flycatcher spends the winter eating fruit in South American forests.
Out in the eastern meadow one morning, a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) sang its wonderful liquid song next to the nesting box at the top of the hill. I didn’t see a mate, so he may have been trying to attract one to that suitable home. This photo was taken an hour later as another one swooped for midges above the Playground Pond. I love the distinctive liquid gurgle of their calls.
Here’s Antonio’s recording of the burbling sound of the Tree Swallow.
In the meadow that morning, a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) had found a small tree near the Tree Swallow. He stood at the very top, threw back his small head, and sang!
The Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) is a summer visitor who spent the winter in either Florida or the Caribbean. This little sparrow has a rusty brown cap and snappy black eye stripe and white supercilium ( strip above the eye).
Some describe its chipping song as sounding like a sewing machine. Below is another recording at Xeno-cantu by my friend, Antonio Xeira.
Tiny early spring butterflies and moths spin and float along the trails, as caterpillars trundle slowly in the grass below. Here again is the caterpillar of the Virginia Ctenucha Moth but this time I saw it upside down so that its red feet and white tufts were more apparent than its dark upper side with its two faint yellow stripes seen in an earlier blog.
You may remember the Spring Azure butterfly with its gray underside from last week’s post about Draper Twin Lake Park. Amazingly, at Bear Creek this week, one settled for a quick moment and I got to see the lovely lavender blue of the upper surface of its wings, which I normally see only as a spinning blur when its flying.
On the trail last week, my husband spotted this tiny moth with about a one inch wingspread. At first I thought it was some sort of fancy fly, but after some research, we learned it was a Grapevine Epimenis Moth (Psychomorpha epimenis). This tiny moth’s caterpillar, as its name applies, uses various grapevines as a host plant. According to Wikipedia, “The larva [caterpillar] makes a leaf shelter in new foliage by taking the leaf edges, pulling them upward and then tying them together with silk.”
During the recent prescribed burn at Bear Creek, Ben discovered a small spring bubbling out of the earth in the eastern meadow. There’s something magical about water flowing up out of the earth, only to sink and disappear again.
The native plants transplanted to Bear Creek last year from a generous donor are beginning to bloom near the pavilion. The golden Wood Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) shone like a little sun of its own in late afternoon light. And another lovely native, new to me, is the wildflower on the right with the unfortunate name of Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora).The leaves seem to droop like the lovely flower, though Ben tells me, once blooming is over, they expand, fill out and look lovely for the rest of the summer!
Final Note: Closed Trail
Some of you may have noticed that the trail that wound around the wetland below the south hill is closed. Five years ago when a management plan was created for Bear Creek, Plantwise, who studied the park and wrote the plan, recommended reducing trail density in the park so that the wildlife would have larger portions of undisturbed habitat. Also, being near the marsh, the newly closed trail is often soggy with standing water, which which means wet feet for hikers, deep ruts made by bikers and headaches for mowing crews. It also means that when those activities take place on the trail, there’s erosion and the possibility of increased sedimentation in the marsh. As Ben said, “Moving the trail away from the wetland may allow the woodcock and some other birds to breed successfully near that little wetland, instead of using it as a temporary stopover on the way to better habitat.”
So if you start down the south hill below the benches, just take a left into what I’ve always called “the tunnel of trees” and you’ll come out on the south side of the meadow that’s east of the Center Pond. From there, you can skirt the wetland from the other side and still see the birds at the edge of the marsh and listen to their songs from a nice dry trail. Dry feet and more birds. Sounds like a workable solution.
Spring All Over Bear Creek
So no matter where you go now in Bear Creek, spring asserts itself. If you settle on a quiet bench by the water, climb a rolling woodland trail or stroll through a sunlit meadow, spring will be singing, flying, fluttering and swimming by and around you. Relish it while it lasts!
Footnote: My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.
If you wonder why it’s so tricky to get photos of migrating birds in the autumn, have a look at the colors of the western Old Field above. The bright gold of the goldenrod has now faded to a soft silvery brown. In their subdued winter plumage, small birds can be nicely camouflaged as they feed. Vines full of fruit hang from bushes and trees – with just enough leaves to make a perfect hiding place. So to see these small visitors, a park walker’s best tools are their ears. Birds aren’t singing now but they do click, whistle, chip and cheep as they move through the tall grass and vines.
I’m not expert enough to identify birds by these autumn calls. I can only locate birds by hearing clicks and cheeps and then wait for them to emerge long enough to take a quick photo or glimpse them through binoculars. This week, some chirping sounds in the woods led me to a delightful chipmunk competition as well. So here’s where my ears led me this week at Bear Creek.
Listening for Migrants: Still Here but in Smaller Numbers
This Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) kindly appeared on a bare branch over the marsh. Its field marks in the fall are that yellow spot below the wing and the rectangular yellow patch above the tail visible in the photo below. Yellow-rumped Warblers tend to be quick and noisy while foraging and even make a chek sound when flying. Page down to “Calls” at this Cornell link to hear their fall cheeping. I love the thought that some of these birds spend the winter on tropical coffee plantations!
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was still here this week, but I only saw single birds, not flocks like last week. This tiny bird is only about 3/4 of an inch longer than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and like the Hummer, can flutter in the air as it picks seeds off of the goldenrod. We spotted this one because of its restless flitting and its call, which sounds a bit like a high-pitched version of the American Red Squirrel’s scold. Click here and page down to “Calls” at this Cornell link.
White-throated Sparrows on their way south bounced and swayed among the goldenrod, looking for seed, or rested, perching in short trees and shrubs nearby. The yellow dots in front of their eyes (their “lores”) make them easier to identify than some sparrows. Cornell describes their call as a “high, level seep”; I’d say a small, soft cheep, but you can listen here under the second “call” and see what you’d name it. This one seemed a bit annoyed at my camera!
A smaller group of young White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys)moved into and out of the tangles of brush along the paths. These brownish youngsters, like the ones in last week’s post, were born south of the Arctic circle this summer. When they return in the spring, their heads will be boldly striped black and white. They’ll have a lovely song then but right now they make a rather simple sparrow “chip” as they forage among the greenery.
The cheek pattern on this brown and gray sparrow means it might be a Swamp Sparrow,but since it refused to emerge from its hiding place in the goldenrod, I can’t be quite sure! If it is, it’ll have longer legs so that it can actually put its head under water to capture aquatic insects. This one was clearly hiding so it didn’t make its metallic “chip” call.
Our summer Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are departing and ones from farther north are arriving here for the winter. Jays are members of the very bright Corvidae bird family, like Crows. Here’s a curious winter migrant exploring a standing dead tree (or “snag”) in Bear Creek. You’ll hear lots of raucous Jay calls in the park right now, as they flock in from the North. The familiar call is at this link at the third recording under “Calls.”
Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) make good use of “snags” for drumming when courting or making holes for nesting in the spring. Now they make only a soft tapping sound as they search for insects and the occasional seed. Their quick vertical/upside-down/every-which-way acrobatic trunk hopping serves as a better clue to finding one. Downies travel in mixed flocks during the winter. According to the Cornell Lab, they get more warning of predators and find more food that way. Females (no red head spot) evidently feed on larger branches or the trunks of trees because males (red spot on back of head) prevent them from feeding on smaller branches and weed stems which females seem to prefer when males are absent! So here’s an “oppressed” female Downy on a large limb.
A Noisy Chipping Competition with an Unimpressed Audience!
The fall colors in the marsh are lovely and I have always loved this big willow that floats like a cloud above the reeds at the south end. Male mallards flutter in the water in an effort to impress the females and find a mate for the spring. Since many of them have not finished molting and still have brown feathers mixed with the iridescent green, the females aren’t paying much attention yet.
In the woods at the edge of the marsh, though, I came across the auditory dueling of EasternChipmunks (Tamias striatus). They each “chipped” steadily for long minutes, presumably defending their cache of nuts and seeds from possible snitching by the other. With winter approaching, it happens! So these chipmunks loudly defended their territories – presumably from me as well as other chipmunks. I saw one of the noisy characters, its whole body throbbing as it “chipped” loudly from a fallen limb.
I wasn’t able to find the answering chipmunk on the other side of the trail, but I did spot a listener nearby.
But evidently, the listening chipmunk found whatever was being communicated quite distasteful – or perhaps it was just having digestion problems! But its expression changed and made me laugh out loud.
Here’s a 30 second recording I made of the two dueling chipmunks warning each other – and me probably – to respect their territory!
Seeds in the Wind!
This week the slender pods of native Butterfly Milkweed (Ascelpias tuberosa) broke open and the wind took the ripe seeds dancing through the air. Whenever we find milkweed seeds of any kind on a mowed or limestone path, some place where it would be difficult for them to grow, my husband and I pick them up and release them into the wind. (We don’t break open seed pods! The seeds aren’t mature until the pods open and the seeds start flying on their own.) We toss or blow them into the air because we want more of milkweed next year. And besides, watching the seeds sail across a meadow, competing to see which one goes farthest and highest, is a good game!
So if you come to Bear Creek this week – or any week – perhaps you too can discover how your ears, as well as your eyes, can help you spot birds, especially small ones, that you’ve never noticed before. And if you see some milkweed seeds that have landed in unfortunate places, toss them skyward and watch them fly!
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991);Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification;Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org